Mad Max: Fury Road- not exactly feminist cinema, but an exemplar action flick

Content warning: this post discusses reproductive violence and disablism. It also contains spoilers for Mad Max: Fury Road

I am a huge fan of the Mad Max franchise, so I will confess I was planning on going to see Fury Road anyway. I began vibrating with excitement when I found out that not only were pretty much all the reviews positive, but that it had really pissed off the blubbering misogo manchildren. So was this the feminist propaganda the MRAs thought it to be? Absolutely not, but my goodness, it was fucking fun.

Fury Road is one of the finest action films I have ever seen. It’s big, it’s loud and it is absolutely and completely preposterous. Like the other Mad Max films, it doesn’t tell us much about what’s going on, giving us space to interpret what’s going on how we like. My own personal read of the franchise has always been “this is what fucking happens when you let men run things and build things”, and Fury Road certainly fits in well here. And it manages to do all this with a series of incredible action sequences, and as a cherry on the top, gives us some female characters to root for.

Let’s talk about the action first, because it’s a step away from the fashion in action films at present, with their shakycams and their blurriness and their cartoonish CGI physics. Fury Road knows what you came to see: you paid to see massive, ludicrous fucking cars engaged in battle and by god you’re going to get it. It knows that you want to see these absurd vehicle fights rather than a headache-inducing, impossible-to-follow swirl of colours and fire and shit flying about like it weights absolutely nothing. The action is clear and coherent, even as it is silly and larger-than-life. Everything happens for a reason, and you get a good look at what’s going on. This is great, because it means you can actually settle down to watch muscle cars with tank caterpillars fighting with heavily-modded oil tankers and enjoy every second of it. The person-on-person fights, too, have a feel of actual humans performing stunts rather than someone alone, awkwardly hopping up and down in front of a green screen while looking at a tennis ball on a stick.

Charlize Theron was rightly billed equal first with Tom Hardy in the opening credits. This is just as much a film about Imperator Furiosa as it is about the eponymous Max. Furiosa is more than your cut-out action girl: she is a woman who cares deeply about her sisters and is willing to go all the way to ensure their safety. She is a woman who gets shit done, without being the robot that the film industry usually seems insistent on making competent women. She’s aware of her own strengths, but also her own limitations. Her role is rounded in the sort of way that would make me wonder if the role was originally written for a man but Theron was just so goddamn good that they cast her instead–this usually being the only way that decent woman characters are born from male writers.

However, I know that this isn’t true, because I know that Fury Road actually had a go at trying to get things right, hiring a feminist to consult. Unfortunately, that feminist was Eve Ensler, so the film is fucking white as hell. It is also fairly problematic in terms of its portrayal of disability, with your standard disablism surrounding the villains being ugly and disabled and evil. This article from Madame Thursday goes deeper into the problematics in its portrayal of disabled and fat characters, and it’s well worth a read.

The motivation for escaping the baddies stems from their reproductive violence. Women are kept by the male villain to breed, and to produce breast milk. This is treated as A Bad Thing, of course, because it would be a completely shit film if it wasn’t. However, treating something as bad when it is indeed objectively bad does not make a feminist film. If you want a feminist text about reproductive violence in a post-apocalyptic world, you’re still going to have to read The Handmaid’s Tale. 

Nonetheless, there’s still some good stuff going on. What is refreshing in Fury Road, though, is that the victims themselves organise their own liberation and resistance, rather than just needing to be rescued. Max himself is a decent role model for white men in how to be an ally: he does what the community needs, knows when to step aside to let women who are the experts to do things for themselves, and is capable of following instructions and fucking off and not demanding cookies. This is, of course, not inconsistent with his characterisation in the earlier Mad Max films. So, men, please watch the entire franchise, and attempt to emulate the way Max acts when trying to provide support. It’s possible we might just let you drive awesome big rigs if you do.

I mentioned earlier that Fury Road chooses to show us things rather than exposit them, and that this is great because we can interpret what we want. It is therefore entirely possible to see a critique of power and manufactured scarcity in a gigantic fucking battle rig which is literally dedicated to providing a someone with a space to play a double-headed guitar which doubles as a flamethrower. If petrol is really so precious, would they really want to waste resources on that? Likewise, you can come up with all sorts of psychoanalytic interpretations of the significance of bodily fluids, or nod sagely at the importance of elder women in actually sorting shit out.

At its heart, Fury Road is something I want every director and writer of action films to sit down and learn from. It shows that it is completely possible to not do women badly, as well as how to make action scenes which are enjoyable to watch. It’s a film to be built upon–making films like this but more feminist will only make them even better. It’s two hours of unmitigated joy, and one of the few films I’ve been to where the audience has applauded. I pity the MRA pissbabies who are boycotting Fury Road because fucking hell, they are really missing out.

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